13 September 2023
The destructive alliance of retailers and the MSC against the ocean
13 September 2023
In a new report in the ‘TunaGate’ series, BLOOM denounces the dangerous role the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label and retailers worldwide play in the destruction of marine ecosystems. They appear to have abandoned any form of ambition with regards to the ‘sustainability’ of the most profitable fisheries in the world: tropical tuna fisheries.
We show that since the first tuna fishery was certified in 2007, MSC-certified volumes have been multiplied by 730, skyrocketing from three million kilos to over 2.2 billion kilos (i.e., roughly half of the global tuna catch; and quickly rising). The prevalence of tuna catches made via ‘fish aggregating devices’ (FADs) is particularly worrisome, as this method is responsible for the death of millions of immature tuna every year, and of vulnerable species including sharks and turtles.(1) Although the MSC itself considers that “tackling the problems associated with FAD fishing is critical to our ocean’s health and productivity”,(2) FAD-associated catches now account for over half of the MSC-certified catch.
By willfully endorsing the MSC and by paying royalties to the MSC to use its logo, we consider that retailers bear a major responsibility in the ongoing collapse of the world’s biodiversity. We ask them to swiftly distance themselves from the sham that is the MSC and to start implementing independent and truly ambitious purchasing policies.
→ Read our latest report “The death label – The MSC’s fake sustainability but true destruction of tuna populations”
A dramatic sequel unravelled over the past decade
Until 2011, 100% of the MSC-certified tuna fisheries were small-scale, low impact fisheries using gears such as pole-and-lines, with total annual catches of around 45 million kilos. The state of play radically changed at the end of 2011, when the world’s largest tuna fishery (the ‘PNA’ fishery, in the Western Pacific) became certified. However, only the part of the PNA’s catch that was not associated with highly destructive drifting FADs was certified — around half a billion kilos annually — thanks to a backward process called the ‘compartmentalization’ of catch.
As part of the then upcoming re-assessment of the PNA fishery in 2016,(3) BLOOM and a wide range of stakeholders launched the ‘On the Hook’ campaign in August 2017, after months of unfruitful exchanges with the MSC. This campaign resulted in the MSC announcing the end of the possibility to ‘compartmentalize’ catches in January 2018, but their standards were only modified in March 2020, effectively allowing compartmentalization until 2023.
Despite the end of compartmentalization, the newfound hopes of civil society were crushed in November 2018, as the first purse seine fishery using drifting FADs — the ‘Echebastar’ fishery — was certified, with catches of 30-40 million kilos annually. The certification of this fishery was initially not granted in 2015, but the MSC then selected it in 2017 as a pilot fishery for its recently-created ‘streamlined process’ (i.e. simplified assessment). This time around, the fishery was certified, causing outrage in the NGO community. In a blatant case of conflict of interests, the MSC even provided £5,000 to Echebastar as a financial incentive to become a pilot fishery for its new simplified assessment, and later provided them with a £50,000 grant to “improv[e] the sustainability of fishing operations that use fish aggregating devices (FADs) in the Indian Ocean“!(4)
Since then, the certification of fisheries using FADs has skyrocketed, and now account for over half of the overall tuna certified by the MSC worldwide, i.e., 1.2 out of 2.2 billion kilos. This proportion is even more astounding when considering that nearly half of the tuna caught in the world is MSC-certified. This trend is far from slowing down and the MSC is on its path to certify 100% of global tuna fisheries in a few years time. In fact, the PNA fishery is currently being re-assessed for the third time, but this time for its entire catch, including the FAD-associated component, bringing its annual total catch to around 1.5 billion kilos.
Have FADs become sustainable over time?
Absolutely not. In fact, they have only become more effective and destructive. The MSC has just redefined its standards so that it can benefit from the very lucrative tuna market, along with retailers and caterers interested in selling supposedly ‘sustainable’ tuna to their customers. As we have already shown in our “Tuna War Games” report, these high-tech rafts continue to pose a dramatic threat to tuna populations and to all other marine life. This method is a prime manifestation of the technological creep that has led to increasingly effective and detrimental tuna fishing over the years. To certify them is to legitimize the destruction of the ocean.
Certifying industrial and ecocidal fishing is a long-standing habit for the MSC. In 2019, BLOOM had already demonstrated that the MSC label was a sham, as 83% of its certified volumes came from destructive fisheries that use high-impact gears such as bottom trawls and dredges, in stark contradiction with the ‘sustainability’ principles it claims promoting (5). In fact, the MSC solely excludes the use of explosives and poison from its scope, meaning that any other fishing method, irrespective of the size of the vessels that operate them, can become certified.
The epitome of unethical: targeting dolphins to catch tuna
With regards to tuna fisheries, destructive FADs are not the only fishing method shockingly endorsed by the MSC: in September 2017, the ‘Northeastern Tropical Pacific Purse Seine yellowfin and skipjack tuna’ fishery was certified.(6) This Mexican fishery, operated by the self-proclaimed Pacific Alliance for Sustainable Tuna (PAST) catches around 100-130 million kilos of tuna per year by… targeting dolphins. In the Eastern Pacific Ocean, tuna are indeed known to associate with dolphins. Catching them on an industrial scale with this technique therefore results in the death of hundreds of dolphins annually,(7) but this does not seem to bother the MSC.
In March 2023, the certification of this fishery was suspended because the fishery was late in providing evidence that the fleet’s interactions with dolphins was acceptable. Since then, the fishery has apparently moved to an “in-transition to MSC program”,(8) and could therefore see its certification renewed in the near future. According to the MSC website, there is even another fishery catching tuna by targeting dolphins — on top of also using FADs — that is being assessed for certification.(9) In an evident effort to greenwash their practices, this fishery is called ‘Atún sostenible EPO Panamá’ by the companies that operate it, which translates to ‘sustainable tuna’.
A business model that depends on high-impact industrial fisheries
One can only wonder why the MSC — which claims to be a “science-based” and “non-profit organization” — keeps allowing the certification of so many fisheries that are obviously worsening the ongoing destruction of the world’s biodiversity. Money is the answer. In 2023, the MSC reported on its website that 88% of its latest annual income came from “charitable activities (logo licensing)”, a chaste wording to designate royalties that retailers and caterers have to pay when they decide to use the MSC logo on the seafood they sell.(10)
BLOOM calls on retailers to take their responsibility
Retailers and caterers bear a major responsibility in this scam. They not only willfully contribute to an overwhelming part of the MSC’s income (close to 30 million euros in royalties levied on logos sold in 2022). They also actively promote the MSC during dedicated events — such as Carrefour’s ‘Sustainable fishing week’ — and highlight the label in their sustainable sourcing policies, in which the MSC certification is frequently referred to as the sole ‘standard’ for selecting ‘sustainable’ seafood.
A wave of legal actions has already started to rise against the MSC and those who decide to use it to pretend that their purchasing policies are sustainable. It is not too late to cease the inflation of misleading certifications.
We urge retailers and caterers worldwide to finally embrace the challenges we are facing as humankind, to distance themselves from this label and to engage in a real, serious transformation of their supply chain to make their sourcing truly sustainable.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(1) See our previous ‘TunaGate’ report entitled “Tuna war games”. Available at: https://bloomassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/tuna-war-games.pdf.
(2) See the promotion MSC website on the ‘PNA’ fishery, the largest tuna fishery in the world. Available at: http://pna-stories.msc.org/.
(3) These reassessments occur every five years, for all other MSC-certified fisheries.
(5) See our previous study “The sham of the MSC label“. Available at: https://www.bloomassociation.org/en/sham-msc-label/.
(10) These are not paid directly to the MSC, but to its trading subsidiary — ‘MSC International’ — which in turn redirects its entire income to its parent company in the form of a charitable donation, thus obtaining a tax exemption on its commercial income, whitewashed into charitable donations. See: MSC International Ltd. Financial Statement for the Year 2022. Available at: https://shorturl.at/swKN3.